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Not your average antenna: Research endeavors explore new ways to use technology at UND

GRAND FORKS - When Sima Noghanian got into a cab in New York City and told her driver she was attending an antenna conference, he laughed and said the technology was outdated."Well what do you think those things are coming through?" Noghanian rec...

GRAND FORKS – When Sima Noghanian got into a cab in New York City and told her driver she was attending an antenna conference, he laughed and said the technology was outdated.

"Well what do you think those things are coming through?" Noghanian recalled responding as she gestured to the phone beside her. "You have Internet on your phone and things that are wireless, you just don't know it has an antenna."

Noghanian is an associate professor of engineering and chairwoman of the Antenna and Applied Electromagnetics Department at the University of North Dakota. After her brother urged her to pursue engineering rather than math, she became interested in antennas as an undergraduate student and has devoted herself to the field ever since.

Noghanian has worked with groups of researchers and sometimes students to look at ways to advance antenna technology for use in space, the human body, industry and even the transfer of power itself.

"Usually antennas in older systems are rigid and need to be in a good place to keep their shape, but these days people are talking about needing something flexible," she said.


In a laboratory in UND's Harrington Hall last week, Noghanian handled antennas that looked like two triangles attached to a stick and were small enough to rest in the palm of her hand. Some were made of stiff plastic-like materials but others were on thin, flexible sheets of cloth or paper.

"We're trying different substances and conductive materials," she said.

From scratch

Milad Mirzaee is a first-year doctoral student currently writing a paper about his research with the small triangular antennas he's testing.

Mirzaee works on every phase of antenna development in UND labs, from initial computer schematics to physical creation and on to testing against the elements.

In order for an antenna to transmit and receive information, it must be made of conductive material, like a metal. Mirzaee said most traditional antennas use copper in some way for this.

Much of his work is done using a 3-D printer; Mirzaee puts various types of conductive material into the machine and 3-D prints the antenna itself or makes a plastic mold he can then pour conductive material into.

The materials he uses to make the antennas are also created in a UND lab.


Once an antenna is built it can then be tested, part of which happens inside an anechoic chamber that is sealed completely to keep out any waves or signals that might interfere with testing.

The inside of the chamber is completely covered in dark blue foam cones pointed inward and sound from the outside world is blocked entirely.

"If you go in your cell phone wouldn't work, nothing from outside," Noghanian said.

The antennas are also tested in an oven, and Noghanian said they're working toward building a freezer for testing as well. These kinds of tests show UND researchers if the antennas they're making can be used in extremely harsh environments, like deep space.

Forging ahead

Noghanian has previously worked on biomedical antennas that could be implanted under patients' skin and used to monitor bodies, tracking cancer development or other things. She said the goal was to create an injectable nano-antenna, but the research did not get that far.

Now much of her research involves the booming field of unmanned aerial systems or space technology, something she said requires more art than science.

Part of her work looks at ways to incorporate antennas like the one Mirzaee is working with and install them into CubeSat satellites--small pieces of technology smaller than a volleyball that can be launched into space but require an antenna to communicate with Earth.


"You need to know your math and background but at the end of the day it's their creativity to come up with the design that works for that application," she said.

Another type of antenna she collaborated to create went into high-tech space suits made by students in the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences as a part of the fabric rather than sticking out like a traditional metal antenna.

Noghanian said she knows her course on microwave antennas is a difficult one but it feels good when the occasional student really takes an interest in her field of study.

"I know we need people," she said. "If you think of the way technology is going we need talented people in this field, and I'm not there to have 100 percent of the class get interested in microwave antennas. But if we get two or three, they can get the training, and they're the kind of people who would bring (the industry) to the next level."

That next level, Noghanian said, is transferring power itself in microwaves via antennas to charge devices wirelessly. Not only are there regulations and safety to think of, but the process itself is extremely difficult.

Not only would this potentially change how the everyday cell phone battery recharges, but it could forever alter the use of solar power which could be transferred via microwave to earth, collected, converted to usable DC power and used as a power source.

"This is the big idea," she said. "It's been around for a while but there are challenges to do this."

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